The Lesson of the Pizza Man
Hollywood Boulevard is iconic. Its legend is built on glamour and hope. Yet, the reality is that those famous pink terrazzo stars that line the sidewalk never move. They don’t change, shine, or twinkle. They remain fixed where the cement dried years ago. If they are lucky, those stars are located in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the El Capitan or the Egyptian Theatre. But the one I walk over these days is less fortunate … it’s set between a T-Shirt store and a pizza parlor. It is there that I learned a lesson about business.
Let me tell you the story … Over the holidays, my gym moved to a temporary location in the heart of Hollywood. Each morning on my way to a 6:30 class I walked over the star of Doris Day, past a window in which a man was making pizza. At that time in the morning he was starting on the dough. By the time I walked back at 7:30 he already had several pies in the window. It was a little puzzling, since there was not that much demand for pizza at that hour, but I loved his dedication. I thought, “Those must be amazing pizzas.”
One Saturday I was there at an hour in which buying a slice was more appropriate. I struck up a conversation and discovered that the pizza man had been doing this, in the same place, for 35 years. I ordered, but took it to go … just in case. I was hopeful of course; anticipating finding an undiscovered treasure. After all, the artisanal fantasy is about someone who does just one thing and does it to perfection.
My first bite was a revelation, yet not in a good way. I realized that just because you’ve been doing something for a long time does not mean you are doing it well, or even right.
Between the orange grease and limp dough it came to me – this was a man who was not curious about anything. Not about improving his work, or about what was going on in the world beyond the star outside his window. Maybe he was just doing as much (or as little) as was expected. Maybe he had wanted to do something more when he was young, then got complacent. By the time he turned around he was too old to change. I can feel a collective shudder; you’re wondering has it happened to you?
Many business owners rest on the tried and true. They feel that customer service, attention to detail and quality set them apart. Yet that is where every business should begin, not end. Every so often we need to look at our businesses through fresh eyes and discover what truly sets us apart. Easily, pizza man could have differentiated himself by using new ingredients (even goat cheese would have been a welcome change), or simply taking a risk and doing something goofy — naming pizzas after celebrities, making them in the shape of a star, or an Oscar statue. Anything would have been better than making the same pizza day after day blaming the sorry state of his business on tourists, the location or the economy.
Even if you have been in the business for 35 years and get up every morning at the crack of dawn to ply your craft, there is always something new to learn. Take a class in another discipline than your own. Take a beginner’s class if you are a master, take a master’s class if you are a beginner. Heed the lesson of the pizza man who gets up every morning to look out a window yet sees nothing new. Be interested in everything and everyone. It’s helps no one to be set in stone, just ask Doris Day.